Trump's Budget Would Partly Replace Food Stamp Benefits With Canned Goods

WASHINGTON ― Facing a trillion-dollar deficit because of his just-passed tax cuts, President Donald Trump has an idea for how to get some of that money back: making poor people eat beans and rice.

In a symbolic budget proposal unveiled Monday, the Trump administration called for sharp spending reductions in a variety of anti-poverty programs. In addition to a steep 25 percent cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, Trump would fundamentally alter how the program works.

Currently, SNAP gives 42 million Americans a food voucher averaging $125 per person that can be redeemed for almost any food product in a grocery store. It’s one of the most important safety net programs in the U.S.

“Under the proposal,” Monday’s budget document says, “households receiving $90 or more per month in SNAP benefits will receive a portion of their benefits in the form of a USDA Foods package, which would include items such as shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit, vegetables, and meat, poultry or fish.”

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney on Monday likened the proposal to a “Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash.”

But Blue Apron delivers ingredients for gourmet meals, not boxes of canned goods and shelf-stable milk. And the food would not necessarily be delivered to people’s homes, according to a fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees food stamps.

Republicans, and even some Democrats, have long complained that poor people allegedly use their food stamps for foods that are unhealthy or too expensive, such as steak, lobster or soda. (The truth is that according to the best available data, food stamp recipients eat basically the same food as everyone else.)

But the Trump administration’s proposal to distribute SNAP benefits in the form of actual canned goods is far bolder than past proposals that simply called for people to be unable to use benefits for certain items, such as sugary drinks.

Having the government buy people’s food would be less efficient than letting them buy it themselves, said Stacy Dean, a nutrition assistance expert at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“We put money in the pocket of individuals to spend at their local grocery store,” Dean said. “The idea that a government bureaucracy could improve on that is a huge mistake.”

Though they are considering changes to food stamps, members of Congress will almost certainly ignore the Trump administration’s beans-and-rice scheme when they begin the legislative process of reauthorizing SNAP this year. Members of the House Agriculture Committee, which oversees that program, have been laying the groundwork for the next reauthorization for the past several years.

The foods package idea is apparently based on an existing program that uses local government agencies and nonprofits to distribute boxes of food to roughly half a million households each month. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program, as it’s known, is restricted to people who are poor and at least 60 years old.

“This cost-effective approach supports American agriculture, prevents certain types of program abuse, provides state flexibility in delivering food benefits, and ensures the nutritional value of the benefits provided,” the budget says.

The USDA said the program would be called America’s Harvest Box. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue called it “a bold, innovative approach to providing nutritious food to people who need assistance feeding themselves and their families ― and all of it is home-grown by American farmers and producers.”

The USDA said states would have flexibility to work out distribution, which could include home delivery or existing partnerships. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program works with local agencies which in turn partner with nonprofits to give out the food, often from distribution sites rather than by delivery.

The Trump administration also wants stricter “work requirements” for nondisabled SNAP recipients, a shared priority of Republicans in the House of Representatives. Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have said they hope to tackle “welfare reform” this year.

Last year, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said he wondered whether the Trump administration’s food stamp ideas were designed as a “setup” to make congressional Republicans seem more reasonable by comparison.

The new budget says the proposed changes would save $213 billion over 10 years. That would be a big cut to food stamps ― but it would also be less than 1 percent of projected federal spending over that time.

This article has been updated with comments from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney.

Clarification: Language has been updated to indicate more clearly that $125 is the average benefit for a SNAP recipient.

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